Pearl Jam Reads the ‘Riot Act’

In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many American bands and songwriters wrestled with how to reflect the state of the country in their music. For a group as seemingly earnest and grounded as Pearl Jam, there was no question the Seattle rockers would be addressing the calamity – as well as the politics of 9/11’s aftermath – on their next album. Yet the band were also reeling from a more personal tragedy.

In 2000, when touring on Binaural, nine concertgoers were killed (and dozens more were injured) amidst a crowd rush during Pearl Jam’s appearance at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival. Although the band members were in no way responsible, the accident had an immense effect on Pearl Jam.

Between 9/11, the George W. Bush administration and the horror at Roskilde, the group’s seventh studio album became a contemplation of anger, frustration and loss. Riot Act was even dedicated to the memory of three bassists who died while Pearl Jam was making the record: Dee Dee Ramone, the Who’s John Entwistle and jazzman Ray Brown. Yet, the record was also about perseverance.

“I’m optimistic yet disillusioned,” singer Eddie Vedder told the A.V. Club in 2002, “hopeful yet frustrated.”

On “Love Boat Captain,” Vedder addresses the Roskilde tragedy directly: “Lost nine friends we’ll never know, two years ago today.” But he also praises the ability to heal, singing “One you hold the hand of love, it’s all surmountable” and quoting the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” Elsewhere, he finds dark humor in an excoriation of then-President Bush on “Bu$hleaguer” (“born on third, thinks he got a triple”), takes aim at greedy CEOs on “Green Disease” and gets philosophical about it all on “Cropduster.”

Although previous Pearl Jam recording sessions had witnessed bouts of writer’s block for primary lyricist Vedder, nothing like that surfaced while the band were making Riot Act at Seattle’s Studio X and Space Studio in 2002. In fact, the band’s frontman became even more integrated into the recording process by setting up a typewriter in a studio alcove, so that he could be directly inspired by the sounds coming from guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron.

“I’ve never seen Ed work harder on lyrics,” McCready told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He’d run upstairs while we were in the studio and type out his lyrics and then come back down and cut…

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